Friday, October 16, 2009

Forgotten Books: Big Lobo - Marshall McCoy (Leonard F. Meares)

First, a little history. Many of you know this stuff already, but bear with me. In the mid-Fifties, an Australian author named Leonard F. Meares began writing American Westerns under various pseudonyms for the Australian publisher Cleveland. These were short novels (30–35,000 words) published as digest-sized paperbacks. Meares’ best-known pseudonym was Marshall Grover, and his most popular series, which began in 1956, was about a couple of drifting Texans named Larry Valentine and Stretch Emerson, who always seemed to wind up in some sort of trouble they had to fight their way out of. The Larry and Stretch books also had a considerable amount of humor in them. The series ran for more than thirty years and eventually would number more than 400 books.

In 1960, Meares launched another series under the Marshall Grover name, this one concerning a small town called Bleak Creak. It lasted a couple of years and ran for eleven books. Then in 1964, he started the series that would be his most successful other than Larry and Stretch, about a former cavalry sergeant named Jim Rand, who left the army to search for the tinhorn gambler who shot and killed his brother Chris. This series began at Cleveland, but a couple of years later, Meares moved it, as well as Larry and Stretch, over to the Australian paperback publisher Horwitz, where the Marshall Grover books were so successful that they attracted the attention of American publishers. In 1968, Bantam began reprinting some of Meares’ books, but some changes were made. Marshall Grover became Marshall McCoy (I suppose someone at the publisher thought that sounded more Western). Larry Valentine became Larry Vance, Stretch Emerson became Streak Everett, and Big Jim Rand, as he had come to be known in the Australian editions, was changed to Nevada Jim Gage for the American reprints.

Which brings us to BIG LOBO, the first book in the Nevada Jim series as published by Bantam. I found this and GUN GLORY FOR TEXANS, the first Larry and Streak book from Bantam, at the same time in early 1968, bought them and read them, loved them, and bought and read the rest of the Marshall McCoy books, knowing nothing at the time about their history, only that I liked them. I never dreamed then that many years later I would go on to read dozens of the Australian originals and would also correspond with the author, Len Meares, for several years before his untimely death in the Nineties.

BIG LOBO is actually the thirtieth book in the original Big Jim series. By this time, Jim has spent several years searching for his brother’s killer and having numerous adventures along the way. He rides in to the town of Halesburg in Arizona Territory just in time to witness a raid on the town by the notorious outlaw Big Lobo, who leads a gang of several dozen vicious owlhoots. Big Lobo and his men don’t try to wipe out the town, though. They just steal some supplies and retreat, leaving the citizens of Halesburg to wait in fear for the next attack, which comes a day or so later. This time the outlaws just steal some horses and liquor before pulling back to their hideout on top of a nearby mesa. Jim realizes that something else is going on here, something odd.

And of course it is, because nobody could pack more plot twists and back-story into 35,000 words than Len Meares. Almost nothing is what it seems, because Meares was a master at taking standard Western situations and turning them upside-down. He didn’t do this in all his books, of course. He wrote more than 800 books, and some of them are pretty traditional Westerns. Many of them, though, have intriguing characters who turn out to be not at all what you expect when you start reading the novels, and that’s true of BIG LOBO. Rereading it now forty years later, I found it to be an excellent hardboiled action Western with some noirish elements. When I was reading these books back in the Sixties, I always preferred the more humorous Larry and Streak books, but when I began reading the Australian editions I discovered just how good the Big Jim/Nevada Jim books really are.

The American editions are still fairly easy to find. I think Bantam published seventeen in each series, all of them coming out in 1968 and ’69. In the Australian editions, the Big Jim series lasted twenty years, from ’64 to ’84, and numbered about sixty books. Halfway through, Jim finally catches up to his brother’s murderer, and after that he settles down to become a horse rancher near the town of Cornerstone, Nevada. I don't think these later books are quite as good as the earlier ones, but they're still worth reading, as are all the books I've ever read by Len Meares. (The Nevada Jim books also have excellent covers by James Bama.)

8 comments:

Randy Johnson said...

Like you, I bought the Bantam editions when they started appearing and enjoyed them all. Unlike you, all the back history is new to me.
Thanks for the post.

ARCHAVIST said...

I love that cover design

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review and background, James. This one isn't in our library but I'll note it. Sounds good.

Ed Lynskey

Anonymous said...

I picked up my first Marshall McCoy book a few years ago. I ran across it in a Half Price Book store. I loved the title, No Gun Is Neutral, it had a nice cover, it was only 86 pages long, and I paid 20 cents for it. After reading it I have been buying all the Marshal McCoy and Marshal Grover books I can find. I have found several of the McCoy books, but only one Grover book. After reading your review I might have to pull one off the shelf and put it in my to-be-read-soon stack.

Danny

James Reasoner said...

Danny,

There's only one U.S. edition that has the Marshall Grover name on it, FEUD AT MENDOZA. Published by Belmont/Tower or Leisure (same thing, pretty much), but I don't recall if it came out before or after the Bantam Marshall McCoys.

Anonymous said...

I actually have two Grover books. One is Feud at Mendoza published by Belmont Tower. It has a copyright date of 1969. The other is the Larry & Stretch novel Go West Joe Best, published by Horwitz Grahame.

Danny

Chuck Wells said...

I've picked up thirteen of the sixteen original Bantam Books editions of his Nevada Jim Western series. Most of mine are pristine copies scrounged from warehoused sources where the books were never offered for sale. Some show wear, but more than anything I agree with what you say about how excellent these reads are. The Bama covers first brought them to my attention, but the stories themselves are what held me. I've read a couple of the Larry and Stretch series too1

http://comicbookcatacombs.blogspot.com/2010/04/from-dust-bin-nevada-jim-westerns.html

Chuck Wells said...

I've picked up thirteen of the sixteen original Bantam Books editions of his Nevada Jim Western series. Most of mine are pristine copies scrounged from warehoused sources where the books were never offered for sale. Some show wear, but more than anything I agree with what you say about how excellent these reads are. The Bama covers first brought them to my attention, but the stories themselves are what held me. I've read a couple of the Larry and Stretch series too1

http://comicbookcatacombs.blogspot.com/2010/04/from-dust-bin-nevada-jim-westerns.html